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(LEAD) N.K. foreign minister seen at Beijing airport ahead of U.S.-proposed summit

All Headlines 15:21 March 15, 2018

(ATTN: ADDS more info throughout)

BEIJING, March 15 (Yonhap) -- North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho was seen at an airport in Beijing on Thursday, raising the possibility that his trip might be aimed at contacting U.S. officials ahead of a proposed summit between the two countries.

Ri was spotted at the Beijing international airport earlier in the day. He is said to be on his way to Sweden, where he is scheduled to hold a foreign ministerial meeting.

Choi Kang-il, a senior North Korean diplomat handling U.S. affairs, was also said to have arrived at the airport. The North Korean officials are expected to leave for Sweden later in the day.

Their overseas trip still raises the possibility that the North might be seeking contact with the United States to discuss details of a planned summit between the leaders of the two countries. President Donald Trump has accepted the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's summit proposal delivered by South Korea's presidential security adviser, adding he wants the meeting to be held by May. The North has yet to make any official announcement about the planned summit.

Sweden, which has an embassy in Pyongyang, has been frequently used as a communication channel between the U.S. and reclusive North Korea.

Early last month, Han Song-ryol, the North's vice foreign minister, also traveled to Sweden. The North didn't explained the purpose of his trip.

A South Korean government official said that it seems that Ri's visit to Sweden, if confirmed, would be intended to strengthen ties with the European country rather than try to contact the U.S. on the proposed summit.

"I haven't heard that the U.S. has anything to do with his trip to Sweden," he said. "If the North wants to talk to the U.S., there would be no reason for its top diplomat to travel all the way to the European country. It could use the existing New York channel to communicate with the U.S."

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